captain beefheart electricity

bibliography - books about


on the arts of don van vliet
usa 1999 alap editions 0 917453 35 2
paperback - 210 pages - 2 pictures - 15,5 x 23 cm

            beefheart / don van vliet - books - w.c. bamberger 'riding
            some kind of unusual skull sleigh (on the arts of don van
            vliet)' - usa 1999


should not be confused with 2004 art set by DON VAN VLIET with same title !!!


yesterday [170999] in the newsgroup a certain michael h. (poor guy, how come you lost most of your last name?) wanted to talk about his insomnia (we're not interested in) and a book about captain beefheart which suddenly seems to have been published (we are!):

[I have a few things to post, having been largely off-line because of doing other things,] not to mention reading Bill (W.C.) Bamberger's new book about Don Van Vliet, entitled Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh. It is incredibly well-written. It is a serious piece of critical analysis that could probably serve as a Ph.D. thesis about Van Vliet (although there are a few errata, being a first printing). All of the quotes and anecdotes are fully referenced and footnoted, and the bibliography and discography are extensive. Although that aspect makes it very much a high-level academic work, it is nevertheless very readable.

Bamberger is a fine writer. He wastes no words, and every paragraph contains either little-known information, a rare anecdote, a quotation, or a bold and innovative take on the topic under discussion. (And no, I am not getting a commission for writing this, as I will show below).

Roughly the last quarter of the book deals with Van Vliet's post-Beefheart art career, and he reports on the changing nature of the art world in a way that was an education for me. Having said that, I must say that even though I am happy that he said many things that needed to be said and that hadn't yet been said, I also wildly disagree with much of the content of the book. (That would probably be considered an endorsement by some people). I won't detail exactly which parts made my hair stand on end and my eyes pop out, but they were in there.

I read it in quite a short time. I couldn't put it down. I had insomnia one night and read part of it for an hour starting at 3:00 am, to give you some idea of how compelling a read it was. Ultimately, I do very strongly disagree with many (perhaps most) of his artistic judgement calls, although the excellence of the scholarship cannot be denied. Art is totally subjective, and ranking one song or painting against another cannot really be done on a cut-and-dried scientific basis with any reliability, no matter how many pundits one can line up on this side or that.

Michael H.

comment by teejo:
'riding some kind of unusual skull sleigh' is the title of one of don van vliet's paintings.
high-level academic work? hmm, then that's just something for mé...


later additions when someone as curious as me asked: > Where is Bamberger's book available? I can't find it --

I got it from him as a promotional copy, and I have started to re-read it, because his ideas are that compelling. There are a lot of new ideas in it, and new thinkers to get into in the bibliography. I don't agree with his general take on Captain Beefheart, (and what two Beefheart fans do agree?) but I find the new intellectual framework interesting.

[...] I disagree with many of his artistic judgement calls, but at the same time, it is the first serious work from a non-member of The Magic Band (he doesn't seem to know colin webb's 'captain beefheart. the man and his music', or considers that a fact-book - teejo), and deserves to be read. There was a hell of a lot of serious scholarship, documentation and footnoting that went into that book, so even though I disagree with many of the value judgements, I think that it is a genuinely scholarly contribution to the various accounts of Don's biography.

Michael H.


by: ben watson from: england 011199 the wire #189

It's hard to think of another rock act that could sustain the minute attention to detail which WC Bamberger applies to Captain Beefheart. Author of critical studies [...], Bamberger is evidently unimpressed by mere pop celebrity. In interpreting an art as rigorous, modernist and hard-edged as Don Van Vliet's, that's all to the good.

Being an independently published book on a commercial misfit, production values are erratic: even the blurb is rife with typos, and the erratum slip gives up after page three. Bamberger's critical theory is also patchy and improvised, with - among other books - The Hand How Its Use Shapes The Brain, Language And Human Culture and On Not Being Able To Paint popping up as needs arise.

However, Van Vliet's records and paintings are scrutinised for what is actually there; they're not merely the occasion for some off-the-peg theory about genius or psychosis. Nor is Bamberger one of those scissors-and-paste dumbos who thinks the mere accumulation of biographical trivia will provide illumination. For those who obsess on the oeuvre - and with Beefheart, you either obsess or you can't listen at all - the book is compulsive reading.

In dealing with the 're-adjustment' of Beefheart's reputation prompted by Zoot Horn Rollo's revelations in Lunar Notes, Bamberger acknowledges the Magic Band members' accusations of cultstyle abuse, but wisely stops short of condemning the extraordinary art - basically the double album Trout Mask Replica - which Captain Beefheart wrung out of his musicians.

He argues that Beefheart turned the players into extensions of his personal tics, which explains why the music can be so asymmetrical and irregular, yet also so organic and coherent. The external measure of socially contracted rhythms was jettisoned in favour of rhythmic intervals that were utterly individual. Like William Blake, Captain Beefheart invented his own system. This is why his music cuts through subsequent styles and fads, and after 30 years still retains its jolting freshness. Beefheart's body-based materialism explodes the blandishments of social codes.

Bamberger's exposition of the eco-materialism at the heart of Beefheart's vision (he characterises it as "Gaia microcosm"), connects to the poetic expounded in [the book] Nearly Too Much: The Poetry Of JH Prynne: bourgeois individualism dissolves as we become aware of the bio-chemical and socio-biological transactions that sustain our physical being.

(However, Bamberger misses the point of "When it Blows Its Stacks". It isn't a song of bluesy male power, but a depiction of the pitiless capitalist: when "He takes 'um out / Out on an iceberg / Hand 'em ah Ronson / 'N says I'll see you around", the boss is giving his workers the sack. This isn't my own insight, but one vouchsafed to me by a mystery guest at [a] hotel, circa 1977.)

After Trout Mask Replica Beefheart gradually relinquished control. His musicians were allowed to assert themselves. The music became less alien - and less special. At his dictatorial zenith, Beefheart allowed no nuance to inflect the playing: every note had to be struck with maximum force. In effect, he converted a rock group into a drum circle, comparable to how James Brown made The JBs play, or how Mark E Smith instructs The Fall.

The nuanced individualism of 'sensitive' playing (Harkleroad's sentimental rendition of Beefheart's "Peon" on the first Mallard album, for example) diminishes the objective power of the collective. Bamberger analyses Beefheart's decline interestingly, and although he praises the post-Bluejeans And Moonbeams 'recovery' of the early 80s, he does point out that all the really radical tunes were written in the Trout Mask Replica period.

Captain Beefheart is now Don Van Vliet, the successful fine art painter shown at galleries in New York, alongside tyros of the mid-80s yuppie art boom [...]. Quite correctly, Bamberger notes that Van Vliet lacks the cynicism and degraded technique of the younger painters, maintaining the painterly sensitivity of abstract expressionists like De Kooning and Kline.

Although Bamberger is no John Berger or TJ Clark (the art critics whose analysis Van Vliet's painting deserves), he does make one colossally interesting point: since he started to sell his pictures, Van Vliet has abandoned his pantheistic imagery of interpenetrating animals and humans. Instead he depicts isolated figures, as sharply defined and at odds with their environment as cacti in the desert.

Bamberger points out that the chic atmosphere of the art gallery alienates rock fans who want something more egalitarian and tactile from their art. Perhaps Beefheart is registering the loneliness of producing one-off artworks in an era when mass production provides the technical basis - if not the property relations - for an art-for-all utopia.

In refusing the category 'art rock', and instead assessing the social realities of rock and art as contrasting modes of communication, Bamberger has started a serious discussion - one normally excluded from rock biographies. The Beefheart cult be damned: anyone who thinks about modern art should read this book.


by: nick barns from: a (sometimes) beefheart discussion list

The book is almost complete rubbish. The only credit I'll award is for attempting to cover Captain Beefheart's whole career, i.e. 2/3 music and 1/3 art. The guy knows more than me about art but that's not saying much. He cannot write and has NO new information and no ideas, except some Daily Mail-type journalism on Beefheart as cult leader, but we'd figured out all of that from Harkleroad / French interviews and writings.

The early history of the Magic Band pre-67 is sparser than in most press clippings that cover it. The press file is the only source the guy has for biographical detail, and quite often the detail is the usual battery of Captain Beefheart myths. He recounts the claim that Don Vliet never went to school, admitting some doubts, but saying that short of going to California, which he hasn't been able to do, the claim will have to do.

The rest of the music period is track by track trawling through the albums, providing a stream of "insights" such as "in this song the subject is obviously cheesed off with both his girl and the world in general". In fact it's no better than the other three Captain Beefheart "biographies" I have, all by fans. This means that so far (as far as book writing is concerned) Beefheart is attracting the worst writers in rock music writing, which is saying something.


not to be confused with 2004 art set by DON VAN VLIET with same title !!!


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